Letters from the Rocky Mountain Indian Missions

Letters from the Rocky Mountain Indian Missions

Letters from the Rocky Mountain Indian Missions

Letters from the Rocky Mountain Indian Missions

Synopsis

Letters from the Rocky Mountain Indian Missions reveals the life of an Italian Jesuit as he worked at three missions in the northern Rocky Mountains from 1874 to 1878. Meticulously translated and carefully annotated, the letters of Father Philip Rappagliosi (1841-78) are a rare and rich source of information about the daily lives, customs, and beliefs of the many Native peoples that he came into contact with: Nez Perces, Kootenais, Salish Flatheads, Coeur d'Alenes, Pend d'Oreilles, Blackfeet, and Canadian Métis. These never-before-translated letters reveal the shifting, sometimes volatile relationship between the missionaries and the Native Americans and also provide a window into the complex lives of the Jesuits. After requesting to work among the Native peoples of the American West, Rappagliosi arrived at Saint Mary's Mission in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana in 1874, where he spent much time among already converted members of the Salish Flathead Nation. The energetic Rappagliosi journeyed next to Canada to visit some Kootenai Indian bands and then was reassigned to Saint Ignatius Mission, where he interacted with the Upper Pend d'Oreilles Indians. Rappagliosi's final and most difficult assignment was at Saint Peter's Mission among the Blackfeet in Montana, who were not converts. There he became embroiled in disputes with a controversial former Oblate priest, and foul play was suspected in his death at the age of thirty-seven.

Excerpt

The letters of Father Philip Rappagliosi, S.J., provide one of our most detailed sources on Salish Flathead Indian life in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana Territory, in the middle 1870s. The descriptions of everyday Salish activities are especially valuable, as most other sources emphasize unusual events over the normal daily routine. The documents also relate valuable information about the lives of the Jesuit missionaries, the different Salish tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, the Canadian Kootenai Indians, the Piegan Indians, and the Métis Indians in Montana Territory. The St. Mary’s Mission letters are the richest sources, presumably because everything was new and exciting to the novice missionary and he had more letter-writing time as he could do little church work until he learned to speak Salish. Because he could speak neither English nor Salish, Rappagliosi’s observations may have been less influenced by biases he would have picked up if he were getting information orally from the local white population.

As a window on Montana Indian life in the 1870s, the letters are a valuable historical source on these Indian communities just before the collapse of the buffalo herds. Extensive and traumatic social and economic changes were coming with the eradication of the buffalo herds in the early 1880s. The world Rappagliosi described would soon be dramatically changed by dislocation and the pain of starvation. These tribes had only about ten years before they would have to almost totally rebuild their economic life.

This translation uses Indian or Native to translate the Italian selvaggio. Selvaggio could have been translated as savage, but the English savage has a much more negative connotation than does the Italian word. There was no indication in the letters that Rappagliosi intended disdain by using selvaggio, and the editor and translators believed that . . .

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